There is much to ponder about comedian Al Murray’s decision to run in the British general election. Murray – as his Pub Landlord character – will stand against UKIP’s Nigel Farage in the constituency of South Thanet. So, will Murray’s presence will help or hinder Farage?
As the charismatic leader of a controversial party that has gained a significant public profile and following, and as someone with relatively long-standing ties to the area, Farage might well feel that Murray is a very minor distraction.
Farage has more experience than most of fending off challenges to his politics and his policies. Crucial in that has been his undoubted capacity to deflect or neutralise those challenges by appealing to his otherness; his status as an outsider to the Westminster set.
But Murray represents a rather different proposition. Murray’s “policy position” is that Farage hasn’t gone far enough: the Pub Landlord pledges that the UK will leave Europe by 2025 and the edge of the solar system by 2050, and make smoking compulsory in pubs in the meantime.
This taking of the perceived values of UKIP to a logical (if absurd) conclusion is, of course, an attack on Farage. It allows Farage’s critics a way into pointing out that the difference between him and Murray is small enough (or ambiguous enough) that both should be rejected.
By equating Farage with a comedian, critics can challenge Farage’s push of recent months to become more respectable. As I have discussed elsewhere, 2015 marks a critical juncture for UKIP – failure to secure a foothold in the Commons might prove catastrophic for its survival. If Murray lands a hit, then the consequences will be felt far beyond South Thanet.
However, Murray’s strategy is a risky one. Precisely because of the ambiguity between the two, voters might decide that Murray is actually a reinforcement of Farage’s rhetoric and his worldview. Murray’s spoiler requires a degree of political engagement from voters that looks rather ambitious: parody only works if you realise it’s parody.
This is even clearer if we consider who is going to be affected by Murray’s presence. A first group will include those who already dislike Farage’s politics, and who were not going to vote for him. For these people, Murray will be a source of amusement, but not a credible voting proposition: instead they will turn to one of the more conventional candidates, who stand a stronger chance of election. Those candidates are not going to be helped by the media-friendly Murray encroaching on their access to the press.
A second group are those who see Murray as a chance to stick up a different set of fingers to the establishment – the “wouldn’t it be a laugh to have a comedian as our MP?” crowd. Let’s leave aside questions of whether Murray could ever sit in the Commons in character, and instead wonder how many of these people would previously have voted for Farage. Maybe some, but probably not many. The disaffection and disillusion that Farage and UKIP have fed upon is much stronger than this.
The third group is potentially the most worrying, even if it also the smallest. These are the people who take Murray at face value and think his “policies” are the real deal, and so switch their votes to him. Here there’s nothing more that can be said than that there’s no accounting for people and in a democracy you have to respect voter’s choices, whatever they might be.
In all three cases, the impact is going to be small and unlikely to much change Farage’s position. This will be made all the more strong by Farage’s capacity to call Murray’s bluff on the question of immigration.
It would be reasonable to suggest that if Murray is asked about immigration, he’ll have to deflect it into something equally trivial, so opening up the space for Farage to talk about “the real problems” (my words, not his) that affect constituents.
Just as Murray is trying to weaken Farage by mocking him, so Farage will be using that to highlight his seriousness. How South Thanet reacts to the tussle will be one of the more entertaining spectacles of the campaign.